The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Credit claiming and the politics of relief efforts

The following guest post is by Cesi Cruz, who recently received her PhD from the University of California, San Diego. Her dissertation was on illegal electoral strategies and was based on extensive field research in the Philippines.  —Erik Voeten.

As the relief efforts for Typhoon Haiyan get underway, a new brand of politicking will begin: the posturing and jostling for center stage among politicians looking to claim credit for relief efforts. It is so common for politicians to attribute the receipt of such resources to their personal efforts and ability that there is a widely used term for it: credit claiming. In her blog post, Jen Keister points to credit claiming as a dilemma for relief organizations wanting to help typhoon victims without contributing to dysfunctional politics in the localities. But while politics can undoubtedly impede relief efforts, the solutions are not as clear-cut.

First of all, even if aid agencies were able to bypass local politicians entirely, there’s no indication that it would be enough to prevent credit claiming. In a new paper on credit claiming in development aid projects, Christina Schneider and I show that in political environments characterized by poor information quality, local politicians can employ a variety of techniques for claiming credit even when they have no influence on the allocation of aid. In other words, even if aid organizations were able to avoid the most egregious examples of misappropriation and misuse, in the absence of well-functioning elections at the local level, politicians can still find a way to use relief aid to their electoral benefit.

Second, bypassing local governments for relief efforts may not necessarily be the best approach for other reasons. Local politicians are well-positioned to provide logistical support and assistance on the ground. In avoiding the bad apples, relief organizations may miss out on the assistance of local politicians who are willing and able to give a hand.

Last, taking a hard stand against credit claiming can lead to even worse outcomes. Eliminating the practice would be beneficial if it led to politicians allowing relief operations to proceed unimpeded. However, it’s also possible that politicians may decide that it’s better to commandeer the relief goods or prevent relief organizations from operating in their localities in the first place.

Given these limitations, I have a different take on the problem: instead of preventing politicians from claiming credit, we should focus our efforts on making sure politicians have ways to earn it in the first place. As my work with Schneider shows, politicians are able to claim credit even when it is clearly undeserved, so it may be better to give politicians an opportunity to pursue well-deserved recognition instead.

Here I’m taking a different lesson from development projects: the idea of counterpart contributions. The World Bank and other development organizations realized that having localities contribute to the aid efforts creates incentives to support the initiatives. Applied to disaster relief, politicians can contribute some of their campaign funds for the relief efforts or they can use their status to raise funds and provide manpower.

Relief organizations can challenge politicians to step up to the plate, and they should reward the ones who choose to do so. Development organizations and country governments have begun to issue “good governance” awards to incentivize good performance at the local level (including the Philippines’s own Galing Pook). Relief organizations can use similar techniques to recognize politicians who go above and beyond to help with relief efforts. Instead of focusing on the near-impossible task of preventing politicians from using relief efforts for political grandstanding, let’s find ways to allow politicians to make a real contribution to the relief efforts so they can claim credit where it is deserved.